December was by far – politically speaking – the most boring month of 2014. So Let’s take a look at the very first maneuvers of 2015, and see how they are linked to the events of the last months of 2014.
Abou Faour’s Health Campaign
Now as you can all remember, PSP minister of health Wael Abou Faour started a food health campaign in November, revealing to the Lebanese endless lists of restaurants and supermarkets which sell commodities that do not meet food criteria. While there are technical reasons for being skeptical about the campaign (the minister stakes this entire crusade on a very shaky foundation: Trust in government), this is not the subject of this post. Nothing isn’t political in Lebanon, and after all, Abou Faour is a minister representing a political party in the cabinet. Although there might be few exceptions of politicians who actually purely work for benefit of their citizens, I will not give Abou Faour the benefit of the doubt – almost everyone else has already given him that. In this post, Abou Faour’s food health campaign will be analysed as a political maneuver, and as a political maneuver only.
It’s All About Elections
Two questions come to mind here:
- Why now? (Jumblatt had ministers in almost every cabinet for the past decade, so why would the reforms start now?)
- Why Abou Faour, and not Akram Chehayyeb? (the PSP-affiliated minister of agriculture)
Every Lebanese probably asked himself the two questions and subsequently made up a weird conspiracy theory including Shawarma, Taymour, and a nuclear war with Salmonella infected Falafels.
Now the first thing to know about Abou Faour is that he is not only a minister, but a member of the parliament too. And not only is he a member of the parliament, he is an MP representing the districts of Rashaya – West Bekaa. For those of you who don’t know that yet, Rashaya – West Bekaa might be the turning point in the next parliamentary elections.
Traditionally, when the PSP heads to elections, it has always 6 districts in mind: Only one of those districts, Aley (5 seats), has a Druze majority (53%). Jumblatt would always have to compete with Talal Arslan over there, but it should be an easy win even if the PSP decides to run without its allies. The next key district for Jumblatt is the Chouf, the third largest constituency in Lebanon with 8 MPs. In the Chouf, the Druze are around 31%, the Sunnis are approximately 28%, while around 40% of the electorate is Christian. The Chouf would become a fierce electoral battle if Jumblatt decides to run against Hariri in the elections. In the end, the outcome would depend on the Christian votes, but it is more likely for Jumblatt to win once he allies himself with 3 or 4 powerful local Christian politicians (most probably the mayors of the biggest towns). However, Jumblatt has a lot to risk here, especially if he’s not allied with the M8 Christians, and an LF-FM alliance could eventually outnumber him in votes in case he’s all by himself.
The four other districts are minor ones for the PSP, where the Druze have only one MP representing it. In the Beirut III district, the Future Movement is in charge and Jumblatt would for sure lose Ghazi Aridi’s seat if he’s all by himself over there. In Baabda, the only way Jumblatt might dream of getting back the Druze seat is by allying himself with M8 (Christians≈52%, Shias≈24%, Druze≈17%, Sunnis≈6%). I know that it might look at first that the Sunnis and the Druze might together outweigh the Shias, but they don’t: If there was any chance for an LF-FM-PSP alliance to emerge victorious in Baabda, it would have done it in 2009. In Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, the Shias are 57% of the electorate. You all know what that means for the southern Druze seat (currently in the hands of Berri’s Amal Movement).
The only minor district that the PSP can effectively manipulate is the West Bekaa – Rashaya one. With 6 MPs representing it (two of them are members of Jumblatt’s bloc), this is the district that is likely to change the identity of the winning coalition in the next parliamentary elections: Walid Jumblatt’s political power is not only defined by his 7 or 11 MPs that are in the middle: It is also defined by the 14 MPs of the Chouf and West Bekaa-Rashaya that he is able to provide for the coalition that allies with him.
So Why Abou Faour, And Not Akram Chehayeb?
It’s because Aley is in Jumblatt’s hands no matter what happens. The West Bekaa – Rashaya constituency isn’t. Abou Faour represents the district of West Bekaa – Rashaya, one of the most mixed districts of Lebanon. The Sunnis are 48% of the electorate, the Shias and the Druze are each 14.5%, while the rest are Christians (around 22%). Now, although it might seem at first that a Sunni-leading party such as the Future Movement would always control this constituency (because of the large Sunni electorate), it’s not the case at all. In fact, in 2009, M14 – That included Jumblatt back then – only managed to win by a relatively small margin of (more or less) 5000 votes. Which means that M8 only needs 2500 ballots to switch allegiance in the next elections for them to win those 6 seats – provided (of course) that people would still vote for the same parties they voted for in 2009. This is where Jumblatt and the PSP votes come in. The 14.5% Druze votes are more than enough to provide a victory for M8. And the more popular Abou Faour is, the more the Christian electorate over there would be friendly towards him, the more it would be an easy win for M8. In the worst case scenario (Like a Hezbollah – Future Movement alliance), Jumblatt could always make use of a popular Abou Faour in order to strengthen his position among the Christians or the Sunnis of the Chouf and try to control his home district all by himself.
Abou Faour also represents the Bekaa which means that no matter how much Jumblatt “strengthens” him, it would be impossible for the minister of health to challenge Jumblatt’s influence in the Druze heartland of southern Mount-Lebanon. The next few years are a transition period for the PSP as Taymour, Jumblatt’s son, is expected to become the first in command in the PSP. Strengthening any member of the old guard in this particular timing, such as the traditional MPs of Aley or the Chouf, would be a risky strategy for Jumblatt. Hence the choice of Abou Faour.
And Why Now? (The Hezbollah – Future Movement Dialogue, You Fools!)
Abu Faour clearly loves the conflict. He describes his work as “battles” and the food scandal as an “invasion,” although he constantly reiterates that he could not have achieved this without the support of his party leader Walid Jumblatt. According to him, it was during their recent trip to Moscow, when he began to receive the results of their investigation that Jumblatt gave him the green light to go ahead.
“It was his idea that we have to open this fight. He told me OK, go on. I’ll be with you, I’ll protect you.”
(Taken from Abou Faour’s interview with the Daily Star)
Rumors of a Hezbollah – FM dialogue started in November, approximately at the same time when Abou Faour’s campaign had started. The meeting eventually happened in December, and was apparently successful. More sessions were scheduled, and the Christian parties of both camps also decided they wanted to have a dialogue of their own (I’ll come back to that later). Like I said earlier, the power of the PSP comes from their 11 MPs in the middle but also from the ability of the party to provide any of the two coalitions with a victory in two key districts: The Chouf, and WB – Rashaya. Jumblatt is only strong as long as the M8 – M14 conflict is strong. Once both rival coalitions strike a deal, they can easily dictate their own terms and throw Jumblatt out of the political equation. A Sunni – Christian (LF/FPM) alliance could easily control the Chouf by reaching out to the two-thirds of its electorate that aren’t Druze, and a Sunni-Shia-Christian alliance could also throw Jumblatt’s two Bekaa MPs outside the parliament. The only district that Jumblatt would control is Aley, and that’s only if the electoral law stays the same. Joining the districts of Baabda and Aley (like in the 2000 electoral law) would mean the end of the PSP’s presence in the parliament. Now of course, it is highly unlikely that any of the two coalitions – even if allied together – would take such drastic measures, but Jumblatt knows that his role will be marginalized after any kind of M8-M14 rapprochement. The size of his bloc has also shrunk from 16 MPs in 2000 to 7 in 2011 (although 4 MPs rejoined his bloc in 2014). Here are some images that illustrate the downfall of Jumblatt’s political power over the past few years. (Source)
Bottom line: Jumblatt knows that he is getting weaker. It is no longer 2000 for him, and he has to change his tactics. The stronger and more popular Abou Faour is, the more Jumblatt can manipulate both alliances with the battle of West Bekaa Rachaya (in case M8 is running against M14) and the more can Jumblatt hope to electorally defend his home district of Chouf (in case M8 and M14 make peace and eventually decide to curb his influence by throwing him outside of the parliament).
And I know what you’re thinking: It’s still too early for elections. But it won’t be too early once M8 and M14 strike a deal that might include an electoral law, a president, and early elections. No one likes the man in the middle. Especially when there is no middle anymore.
Lebanese Forces – Free Patriotic Movement
While Lebanon was busy these past two weeks tweeting #jesuischarlie or #jenesuispascharlie and discussing Mia Khalifa and Miss Lebanon’s selfie, it missed the event of the decade: Aoun was tasting Geagea’s chocolate truffles. The moment Hezbollah and the Future Movement wanted to start their dialogue, their Christian allies decided to do the same. Now the tricky part here is to know whether the inter-Christian meeting is to support the HA-FM dialogue or to hinder it. The Christian parties aren’t concerned with HA-FM agreements, as long as their Muslim allies don’t abandon them as candidates in the presidential elections. Which is why the Christian leaders are rushing to meet each other after it was said that the first HA-FM dialogue session was successful. Deep down, Aoun and Geagea’s biggest fear is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah agree on a consensual presidential candidate. And their maneuver to counter this possibility was smart: Geagea’s sources hinted that he was ready – if certain conditions are met – to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections. Geagea knows that it is impossible for Aoun to make it through – Aoun would never accept Geagea’s conditions, and even if Aoun accepts Geagea’s terms, we still don’t know if Berri and Jumblatt would provide quorum – but he eventually forces Hezbollah to stick with Aoun now that the FPM’s candidate is supported by the LF. In other words, he forces the Mustaqbal to stick with him, while appearing as a kingmaker. Aoun looks like the most powerful (yet not powerful enough) candidate, and eventually any consensual FM-HA candidate loses momentum – even if it’s for a short period of time.
Connecting The Dots
So in one paragraph, here’s everything that happened in the past two to three months: Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea, Geagea agreed to support Aoun, and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory.
Reminder: We still don’t have a president. (It’s been eight months)
242 days since the 25th of May. 78 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.